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The Siren Song Of The JMT


High country lakes that the JMT visits offer water to slake your thirst and prepare your meals as well as sheer beauty/Rita Beamish

Editor’s note: There are hikes, and then there are hikes. The latter are multi-week, and sometimes multi-month, endeavors that pull one into the landscape and provide ample time for introspection and personal testing while incredible sunsets and sunrises, placid lakes, and forests primeval wow you. Some park travelers gravitate naturally to these long-distance exploits; others wonder if they could accomplish just one, and some just want to enjoy them vicariously from the comfort of home. Rita Beamish doesn’t seem quite satisfied if she can’t load her pack and disappear down a trail at least once a year. Last year she hiked the entire John Muir Trail, and this past summer she revisited it. 

Such a pitiful throw. I watched my boot wobble above Mono Creek, then — in what seemed like real-life slow-mo — bounce against a rock and flip into the rushing current. Gone, gone, gone. Barefoot on the bank, I screamed, cursing my idiocy for tossing my boots instead of carrying them across in the wading shoes lent by my new friend, Doug Crispin. My life flashed before my eyes there on Mono Creek, days from anywhere. But then, someone was crashing through the creekside foliage. It was Doug’s buddy, 64-year-old Wayne Anderson, scrambling and splashing after the fast-descending boot. He plunged full-body into the current and, as we held our breath, snatched it the millisecond before it sailed from reach. And did I mention — these were men I’d met just two days earlier?

A new trail friend was curious.

“You hiked the whole John Muir Trail last year. Why did you want to come back to the same place?”

For a second, the question threw me. Wasn’t it obvious that this 211-mile Sierra gauntlet was paradise on earth? Could anyone resist the spell of its shimmery streams tumbling in and out of icy, see-to-the-bottom lakes, or the bursts of wildflowers poking through boulders beneath sawtooth peaks? Or the coyote posing Pride-Rock style to silently watch me ply the trail? Even the leg-melting climbs redeemed themselves with relentlessly exhilarating vistas and rocky drama, not to mention the promise of downhill cruises to green meadows and rushing whitewater, which sent an echoing crescendo across the granite slopes. I’ve hiked worldwide, but never considered NOT coming back here, beguiled as I was by the siren song of the JMT.

And there’s something more: the people you meet on the JMT.

Stretching from Sequoia National Park to Yosemite National Park, and cutting through Devils Postpipe National Monument, the John Muir Trail is one of the West's classic hikes/Rita Beamish

This past summer, I was curious to see how the famed Yosemite-to-Mount Whitney route had fared in the Sierra’s wettest year on record—a curiosity that waned amid tales of snow slogs and treacherously swollen streams. I monitored Recreation. gov for a late-summer permit, and more forgiving conditions: doable fords and snow patches conveniently stomped down by early-season boots. I snapped up an August 19 opening out of Agnew Meadows, a few days south of Yosemite.

My friend Vicki King and I thus set off on the High Trail, intersecting the JMT at sprawling Thousand Island Lake (where we misinterpreted a sign—no, really—and learned the hard way that a ranger was enforcing a no-camping zone in a comfy meadow). We now were part of the migration of 3,500 John Muir Trail hikers, brethren of bucket-listers, Sierra diehards, and international purists checking out world-class scenery.

It was not completely isolating, but far from crowded. It was even a little spooky sometimes in the rocky remoteness above the tree line. The JMT has a way of forging automatic kinship in this broad group, with easy bonds borne of sharing, from the daily sky-watching routine to guess if rain will hit tonight’s camp spot to pausing to quietly watch deer saunter across our trail.

We grunt encouragement when we meet on the haul up to moonscapey Wanda Lake and Muir Pass beyond. We’ll chat while waiting out a downpour under a rock overhang at Grouse Meadows. We’ll commiserate about those hairy switchbacks on the south side of Mather, and greet each other days later atop the dreaded (but maybe not so bad?) Forester Pass, gazing down both steep sides in shared pride. And then, there’s the happy realization that soon we’ll conquer Whitney, too.

It’s easy to be swept into this community’s generosity of spirit. I saw Wayne, a nurse, tend to the blisters of complete strangers, much as a former Marine from Southern California did for me and others the previous summer. Fellow hikers commiserated with a JMTer from Houston when he got word that Hurricane Harvey had flooded his house.

Then there were the self-named “Three Canucks,” a man and two women from Ottawa. They cheerfully hopscotched us for several days and shared their bounty of Snickers and M&Ms at the Muir Ranch resupply. I thought of the Nevadan from last summer who, knowing my friend and I were low on food with days yet to hike, handed me a pound of nuts; and Liz, a nurse from Washington who carried a bountiful pack and similarly took us under her wing when we came up empty before our resupply.

The moon eclipsed the sun while Vicki and I were on the trail threading some woods under an overcast sky. We did look for it, but saw nothing. That didn’t matter. The rhythm and majesty of the JMT, and the friends you make on the spine of the Sierra, create its own kind of magic.

It’s tough to keep your eyes on the trail in front of you with the sweeping vistas of the High Sierra surrounding you/Rita Beamish

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